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Underwater Forensics is Solving Sea Crimes

2 Comments 03 February 2011

Underwater Forensics is Solving Sea Crimes

Enforcing marine laws that protect coral reefs and other marine life requires indisputable facts and solid evidence to the convict the guilty in a court of law. Experts are now applying forensic techniques to retrieve evidence from underwater crime scenes in an effort to uphold laws that protect coral life and other marine mammals.

Underwater crimes include events such as anchors tearing through coral reefs, spills, using bleach or cyanide to stun tropical fish for the aquarium trade and more. Coral reef ecologist David Gulko spearheaded the movement of proving that crimes against coral reefs and other marine organisms took place by using forensics technology.

In a telephone interview Gulko told WaterWideWeb, “In the early 2000’s, we were trained as scientists and presented our data in court. But, we were losing a lot of cases because lawyers and advisors were nailing us for not treating our data as evidence.”

Essentially, Gulko was faced with the daunting task of securing a crime scene that takes places underwater, an environment that is ever-changing with currents, tides, and temperature. Underwater, there are no witnesses, predators can feed on evidence, and the ability to assess the crime is nuanced by the surrounding waters.

Securing a crime scene underwater requires agility and efficiency. “We have to use methods that are fast, well coordinated, and multi-disciplinary. Rarely do we have the ability to go back to a same crime scene and find it in same condition,” continued Gulko.

Ken Goddard, lab director of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory joined Gulko’s team to handle the investigative elements of crime scene analysis back in 2006. Goddard was a former deputy sheriff and criminalist for California’s Riverside County Sherrif’s Department. He also set up a Scientific Investigations Laboratory in California’s Huntington Beach Police Department and he’s an advisor for the popular T.V. series CSI.

When Goddard joined Gulko’s team, he had to completely restructure procedures and protocols used to solve land crimes. But first, Goddard had to learn how to deep sea dive. “On land, you can take about two hundred to three hundred photographs at a typical crime scene. And, you collect about fifty to sixty items of evidence. We just can’t do that in the ocean,” noted Goddard.

After his first meeting with Gulko and his team in Cozumel, Mexico in 2006, Goddard realized that specific forensic techniques were not directly applicable to underwater crimes. Most importantly, Goddard understood that every second counts when a diver goes under the water to assess a crime scene. “You only have 3 dives, which is approximately forty five minutes to an hour depending on the depth and current,” Goddard told WaterWideWeb.

Securing a crime scene was only half of the battle to understanding underwater forensics. His job was to distinguish between impacts of coral reefs, determining when a crime took place, and identifying who could be prosecuted for crimes once enough evidence was compiled.

Answering questions like “Who, What, When, and Where”, require soundproof analytic abilities combined with a stroke of sheer genius. “In terms of coral reefs, you first have to determine when a coral reef is dead. Then you have to know what the coral reef looked like a day, a week, or a month beforehand,” explained Goddard.

Over the past several years, Gulko’s team has expanded and there are currently underwater forensics teams in the Dominican Republic and Barbados. Gulko’s team travels and teaches his techniques to teams of professionals around the world. “When we conduct trainings, we leave behind a trail and gear, and it’s left up to that countries natural resources trustee agency to implement the techniques we’ve taught,” explained Gulko.

Gulko’s team uses a capacity building approach when training divers in different countries. Professionals at the local level who are familiar with the history and politics of a given country are then able to conduct underwater forensic investigations without outside involvement.

The underwater CSI initiative is now expanding to include several new subfields for upholding violations of marine law. Firstly, Gulko’s team will be enhancing investigative enforcement if a fishing boat or other ship is suspected of taking part in illegal activities. Secondly, the team will come up with a means of testing for contaminants in the water almost immediately, without taking samples back to a lab for processing.

“Really we’re working on the equivalent of home pregnancy test kit that you could use on the water to give a quick analysis of chemicals. It would be sensitive enough to assess things that would be hazardous to a team, and establish probable cause for follow up investigatoins,” said Gulko. Thirdly, the team will be working on a forensic model specifically for sea turtle crimes.

Passing laws that make a crime punishable is only half of the battle to protecting our oceans and marine life. Enforcing those laws with proof and the laws of science are the other half of eco-rights equation. Science and good old fashioned detective work are joining forces to create a whole new type of environmental protection agency with Gulko’s underwater forensics and CSI laboratory. Criminals can paddle away but they certainly can’t hide from the clues that are left behind in the depths of the sea. sharing this themes.

The photo above was taken by Professor Marcy Balunas and Kim Diver

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